Big companies tend to have summer interns lined up early in the year, but as some small and medium-sized employers seek talent to help with an uptick in business or with administrative or marketing tasks, a common error is a poorly planned intern program.
That was the lesson learned when Eaton Steel Bar Co. Inc. in Oak Park took on its first intern in 2007. Having put little thought into what the intern would be doing upon arrival, the company didn’t get as much benefit from the intern as it might have, and the intern also was underwhelmed with the work.
“It failed because we didn’t really know what to do with him,” said Steve Cramer, a purchasing agent at Eaton who helped set up the intern program. “We left him there and let him get bored.”
A switch to a new Oracle sales system prompted Eaton to try an intern. The company figured a student might be more up to speed on the latest systems and could help the transition through a paid internship.
And he did, but he was eager to do more than administrative tasks. He wanted to learn deeper parts of the business to get the bigger picture of what it does. Eaton learned this during the exit interview, when it was too late to do anything about it.
“We learned the lesson that we need to find out what the interns coming in want to do and see if we have a need in that realm so it’s beneficial for the intern and also for the company,” Cramer said.
This is the time of year when college students are preparing for finals and employers are preparing to take on students as summer interns right after the tests are over. But employers that haven’t hired interns before should slow down, said Amanda Dumond, director of talent initiatives at Prima Civitas in East Lansing. Dumond manages the nonprofit’s Michigan Internship Initiative, which helps small businesses and nonprofits create effective internship programs.
Setting up a formal structure, identifying which managers will be involved, getting input from those managers and planning specific projects will save a lot of headaches. The purpose of the program should be clearly established, Dumond said. Is it to fill a soft spot in day-to-day work? To fill the talent pipeline?
“Everybody at some point has had a bad experience with an internship program. You start to ask them questions and drill down, and you realize they didn’t have that structure in place,” Dumond said.
The Michigan Internship Initiative launched in 2010, expanding from an existing initiative begun by Cindy Brown, executive director at Hello West Michigan, a talent attraction organization for the state’s west side. Prima Civitas carried the effort to the rest of the state.
About 2,200 employers have received help through the initiative, usually through training sessions held at colleges, high schools and workforce development agencies.
Brown said the launch of an internship program starts with a clear job description and work plan.
“Set up expectations at the beginning,” Brown said.
The Michigan Internship Initiative’s main resource is its tool kit, which includes things like confidentiality agreements and steps for forming a program. It also connects experienced employers with ones just beginning their intern programs. Employers can call the initiative’s two point people, Dumond and Brown, with questions.
The services are free, thanks to funding from Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Michigan State University and the Michigan Economic Development Corp., except when an employer asks for a program to be built from scratch. Then a fee is arranged.
“It could be as simple as they can’t get the IT department on board because (IT managers) don’t want to give the intern access to the shared drive,” Dumond said of the types of questions employers have. “We let the department know that interns can sign confidentiality agreements just like employees. A lot of times they call because a little thing like that is preventing them from having a program.”
It’s the rare case when the intern simply isn’t up to the task. In those cases, employers might try moving the students to another project or department, Brown recommended.
“Most of the time, it’s just poor planning,” Brown said of internships she’s seen go sour.
Ahead of its next go at hiring interns in 2010, Eaton got help from the initiative and Central Michigan University, a school Eaton targeted for its supply chain management program, and planned its internship program step by step.
The company brings in four or five interns a year, usually for 16-week stints. About 10 of them have turned that into permanent full-time jobs at the company, alleviating some of the worry about replacing members of its aging workforce.
Because of his limited scope of activity, the first intern at Eaton had struggled to understand the company’s niche. That was changed for later interns.
“That’s the very first thing they learn when they come in — what we do and why we do it and where we exist in the marketplace, our niche,” Cramer said.
Eaton gives interns long-term projects alongside day-to-day tasks and are assigned a manager. They’re also put in rotational internships, where they get experience on the commercial and production sides of the business to see what they like.
Interns want large projects to sink their teeth into. “Some are much better at it than some guys who’ve been in the business 25 years,” Cramer said.
The problem with Eaton’s first attempt at hiring interns wasn’t that it dragged staff resources, but that Eaton missed an opportunity to benefit more, he said. Subsequent interns have done things like manage accounts, place a $250,000 order for steel and conduct marketing studies. Many are quick studies and can begin to relieve the staff workload within a few weeks.
One student was asked to find new ways to make money from a line of steel-cutting saws the company had purchased to satisfy a key customer. The student, armed with the latest knowledge on how to go about such a study, came through.
“We’ll benefit for many years on that project,” Cramer said.
Interns are paid $13-$15 an hour, depending on their commuting distance.
The best-run internship programs designate a supervisor for the intern and treat students like employees, including formalities such as orientation procedures, said Shelley Lowe, executive director of career services at Davenport University.
Lack of preparation leads to floundering, she said. A symptom of this is when staff members are reluctant to give up tasks they hold dear. Workers, never consulted in the early stages, end up resenting the interns.
“We usually catch it within two weeks. We’ll work it out or pull the student from the site,” Lowe said.
Another employer-side reason for pulling an intern is if the employer indiscriminately dumps work on the student.
Students aren’t exempt from getting themselves yanked, either, be it for general lack of ability or for specific “soft skills” problems, like making statements to customers that aren’t within company policy.
“No employer should feel like they’re stuck with somebody,” Lowe said. But pulling interns for any reason is very rare, she said.
“They’re taking that word back to their college,” said Brian Partie, associate director of career services at Oakland University and president of the Michigan Career Educator and Employer Alliance, which has 500 members — half employers and half career services people from colleges and universities.
A 2013 National Association of Colleges and Employers survey showed conversion rates of 48 percent for interns becoming full-time employees. That’s significant when considering the cost of recruiting and rolling the dice with new employees, Dumond said, especially since interns who become employees tend to stick around.
“Interns are already exposed to the culture and company, they already know what they’re coming into,” Dumond said.
But, a lack of soft skills can cause unpredictable problems to arise, making the need for regular communication — with the student and the school — all the more important. At Southwest Solutions, a Detroit nonprofit, a Davenport accounting intern was ready to pack it in last year because he kept hearing his supervisor sighing and assumed the supervisor was unhappy with his work.
The student contacted his Davenport intern manager who told the student to talk to the supervisor directly about it. Upon doing so, the student learned it was just the supervisor’s habit and had nothing to do with him.
Businesses also get hung up by not knowing where to look for interns. Employee referral programs can be effective, as long as the intern program structure is well organized beforehand, Dumond said. But approaching universities, some of which have dozens of career services staff members who have “intern” in their title, can be daunting.
Eaton got around this by cold-calling the head of CMU’s supply chain management program. It also now works with Eastern Michigan University and Oakland University.
Going through career services usually yields a bigger pool of candidates and helps with equal opportunity requirements, said Lowe at Davenport. But in any event, employers shouldn’t assume their call is unwelcome. “There’s not a faculty person on this earth that wouldn’t appreciate it,” Lowe said.
Another conundrum that comes up is that, while a business could really use the help, it would take time from already thinly stretched staff to create and manage the intern program. The answer lies in the question: Hire a business administration student, perhaps one with an interest in human resources, to manage the project.
“The first intern role can be to help develop the intern program,” Dumond said. “And then get ready to scale that intern program.”